A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration, The

Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration, The

Price, Jennifer M

THE ETERNAL DARKNESS: A Personal History of DeepSea Exploration, by Robert D. Ballard with Will Hively. New York, N.Y.: Princeton University Press, 2000. 350 pp. $29.95.

Dr. Ballard, perhaps the best-known undersea explorer of the late 20th century, is president of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., and former director of the Center for Marine Exploration at Woods Hole, Mass. He has participated in more than 100 deep-sea expeditions. He is the author of several best-selling books, including The Discovery of the Titanic, Explorations, Exploring the Bismarck, and Return to Midway. He also has participated in the production of numerous television programs, including five National Geographic TV specials. In short, he writes with authorityand, fortunately for the everyday reader, with consummate clarity.

“I am keenly aware of my status as an insidera privileged witness to a fascinating burst of exploration,” Ballard writes in his preface. “I feel it my duty to now tell that story as best I can. … The purpose of this book is to take you deep beneath the familiar surface of the sea to grasp the true character and true dimensions of this vast, eternal darkness-and to take you there in a way that retraces the steps of the pioneers who first explored that world.” He accomplishes his goal in this well-written history, Which is divided into 10 chapters spread over three major sections.

Part One, “Depth,” describes an era that is “in terms of technical ingenuity and human bravery … every bit as amazing as the history of early aviation. Yet many of these individuals [undersea explorers], and the deep-diving vehicles that they built and tested, are not well known.” The three chapters in this section cover the history of sea exploration from the first successful dives of Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton in the bathysphere, to Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh aboard the bathyscaph Trieste in their historic drop to the bottom of Challenger Deep (the deepest spot in the world ocean), and finally to the tragic loss of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Thresher and the birth of the submersible.

Part Two, “Discovery>” extends over four chapter and provides the history of an era of technological advancement that in terms of results “was every bit as important for the earth sciences as the race into space was for astronomy.” Here the focus is on the use of submersibles to reach the hitherto inaccessible regions of the world ocean. Ballard’s background as a marine geologist and his extensive involvement in deepsea exploration become even more apparent in these chapters. (The narrative shifts unobtrusively from third person to first person at times, with the reader hardly noticing.)

Part Three, “Detachment,” makes up the last three chapters, which describe other advances, some only in the conceptual stage, that may allow future generations “to join a mission someday-not merely as distant observers but as active participants:’ Ballard is clearly a proponent of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and the advantages they offer, not the least of which is their ability to provide “telepresence:’ Chapter Eight describes the mapping of the USS Thresher wreckage, a task-and an achievement-that served as precursor to the discovery of the Titanic. Chapter Nine continues the tale of the Titanic as well as the increasing use of ROVs for historical finds. Chapter 10 is devoted to Ballard’s prognosis for the future of submersibles and ROVs and his hopes for even greater interactions between and among researchers, oceanographers and other scientists, school children, and even underseas tourists through telepresence.

Well-written and easy to read, The Eternal Darkness is an excellent general primer to anyone interested in deep-sea exploration. Ballard clearly achieves the ambitious goals he set for himself in the preface and takes the reader through 70 years of exploration, and inspires hope for the future. His eyewitness point of view and undaunted enthusiasm come through in the tone of the book. He illuminates The Eternal Darkness as no author before him.

With source notes, bibliography, index, 12 color plates, and 78 black-and-white photographs.

Copyright Navy League of the United States Apr 2000

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